Teaching Group Play Skills to Children with Autism

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Teaching children with autism to play with others can be an important part of developing their social skills and cognition. This lesson discusses teaching group play skills to children with autism.

Why Group Play Counts

As a teacher who works with children with autism in an inclusive early childhood setting, or one where students with disabilities learn and grow alongside typically developing peers, Carrie understands that play is a crucial part of development.

All children learn through play. Carrie knows that play is how students learn to use their bodies, develop their language skills, test out different concepts they are working with, and learn to interact with others.

At the same time, Carrie knows that play, and particularly group play, can be difficult for children with autism. These children are often easily overstimulated, or overwhelmed with sensory input.

They often struggle relationally, in terms of knowing how to interact with others. They also might have language delays that make communication hard in the context of play.

Get Explicit

Carrie knows that it is her job to teach her students with autism the skills they need in order to play in groups. This means explicitly instructing them in play skills, rather than assuming they will just figure it out.

As Carrie understands, children with autism benefit from clear, explicit and direct instruction whenever possible. She teaches her students specific lessons in:

  • how to enter into a play scenario
  • how to hold and work with different toys and materials
  • how to listen to another child during play
  • how to take turns with others and share toys.

Carrie also observes her students during play times so that she has a good sense of what they struggle with, and she plans lessons to teach them the specific skills she sees as getting in the way of their participation in group play.

Social Stories and Scripts

Often, children with autism have a hard time during group play because they feel overwhelmed or cannot access the language and strategies they need. Carrie uses social stories and scripts, or anecdotes and prewritten language, to teach her students about challenging play-related situations and how they might handle them.

Carrie writes social stories for her students about sharing toys, playing board games, feeling frustrated during play, feeling sad during play, and so on. She also writes scripts for how a group play scenario might work, and she reads these to her students and performs them together with them repeatedly.

All of these strategies help her students internalize some of the language and strategies that will help them the most during group play.

Routine and Repetition

Routine and repetition are almost always important for children with autism and play situations are no exception. Carrie ensures that play happens during the same time every day, and she encourages her students with autism to play with the same kids and materials repeatedly before they move on to anything different.

Carrie finds that when her students with autism know well what to expect and what is expected of them, they thrive more readily and can take small risks within these routinized constraints.

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